By: Richard Sisk
Vice President Mike Pence recalled Monday how he asked a last favor from an ailing George H.W. Bush in August on behalf of his son, Marine 1st Lt. Michael Pence — never expecting that the former president would be able to comply.
The young Pence had just made his first tailhook carrier landing on the aircraft carrier George H.W. Bush, earning his wings as a Marine pilot. Could the former president please autograph a photo for his son?
Pence said Bush’s staff replied that he was no longer signing autographs, so he thought that was the end of it. But within a week, a handwritten letter and a signed photo from Bush arrived.
“Congratulations on receiving your wings of gold,” Bush wrote to Pence’s son. “Though we have not met, I wish you many days of CAVU ahead” — a reference to the Navy acronym meaning “Ceiling and Visibility Unlimited” that he adopted as his motto in public service.
Pence told the story upon the arrival of Bush’s casket at the Capitol as an example of the former president’s basic decency and humility. Even in death, Bush performed another public service in the form of a brief respite from the partisan infighting and mudslinging of the warring factions of the White House and Congress.
As Bush’s flag-draped casket was borne to the Capitol’s Rotunda to lie in state, President Donald Trump and Congress were nearing a tentative agreement to put off a battle on the budget and the funding of the border wall — at least until next week — that could have led to a partial government shutdown Friday.
The House and Senate also postponed what would have been a contentious series of hearings on veterans and military issues.
In their remarks in the Rotunda, Congressional leaders and Pence made clear that the usual partisanship would have been unseemly while paying tribute to the 41st president, known for his inability to bear a grudge.
As James Baker, Bush’s secretary of state and chief of staff, has often said, Bush got to be president by “being nice to people.”
A siren-blaring cortege led the hearse bearing Bush’s casket down Pennsylvania Avenue to the Capitol on a crisp and clear Monday evening in Washington, D.C., with enough breeze to give a steady ripple to the flags at half-staff in mourning.
At the East Front of the Capitol, honor units from all the services snapped to attention and then to “Present Arms” as military bearers took the casket from the hearse and then up the steps of the East Front to the Rotunda.
Ceremonial cannon boomed a 21-gun salute, and a military band played “Hail to the Chief” in a somber rhythm.
At the top of the steps, former President George W. Bush, the corners of his mouth sharply downturned, waited with former first lady Laura Bush, their hands on their hearts.
Also waiting was the rest of the late president’s immediate family — his children, including former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, Neil, Marvin and Doro; and the Bush grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
The military bearers placed Bush’s flag-draped casket with great care on the catafalque that once bore the body of Abraham Lincoln.
In folding chairs arranged around the casket sat the Joint Chiefs, the justices of the Supreme Court, and members of the House and Senate, along with former Cabinet members who served under the late president, including former Vice President Dick Cheney.
In his invocation, Rev. Patrick Conroy, chaplain of the House, gave thanks to God for granting the blessing of Bush’s “example of service to all Americans, indeed to all the world.”
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky, said that honoring Bush had brought Congress together “on democracy’s front porch” in the Rotunda, “a good place to talk as neighbors and friends.”
“Here lies a great man,” said House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wisconsin. He called Bush “a great leader and a good man, a gentle soul of firm resolve. His memory will belong to glory.”
Trump and first lady Melania Trump did not attend the arrival of Bush’s casket but were expected to pay their respects later Monday evening.
Bush will lie in state at the Capitol until Wednesday morning, when a funeral will be held at Washington National Cathedral. His casket will then return to Houston for interment.
— Richard Sisk can be reached at Richard.Sisk@Military.com.